Florida Keys News
Sunday, January 5, 2014
An American tourist in Cuba
Editor's note: Reporter Adam Linhardt recently spent 10 days in Cuba with photographer and Cuban travel-veteran Rob O'Neal, exploring the country to learn more about American travel to the nation. What follows is a man-on-the-street account of that journey.

Editor's note: Reporter Adam Linhardt recently spent 10 days in Cuba with photographer and Cuban travel-veteran Rob O'Neal, exploring the country to learn more about American travel to the nation. What follows is a man-on-the-street account of that journey.

Pototo's house is in the heart of Old Town Havana, along the narrow streets crowded with old American cars that have become part of the American, cliched image of Cuba.

It sits along a shotgun row of buildings that make up the oldest parts of the city. Pototo -- he asked that The Citizen not use his full name -- and his family operate a casa particular (or guest house) on the second floor, reachable by a marble staircase that looks as old as the city itself.

A small terrace opens beyond the kitchen that's exposed to an alley below. It's a popular spot for guests who gather there to smoke, eat and gather information from Pototo -- under the watchful eye of Rocky, the family's new ankle-biting puppy.

Pototo, like many of his countrymen, is quick to laugh and offers jokes as he dashes from kitchen to terrace, refilling drinks and calling taxis.

"I have seen more American tourists in the last five years and the reasons for that are, of course, just my modest personal opinion," the host said, grinning and pulling a deep drag from an Upmann cigarette. "For Americans, Cuba has been the forbidden fruit for the last 50 years, so a big number of Americans take the risk to come over to a Third World country to taste the flavor."

Below him the streets are pot-holed and lines dangle precariously from poles, providing a contrasting backdrop against the Spanish-era buildings that once shined, making the city the "crown jewel of the Caribbean."

That moniker seems dated now, if it were not for the bright flash of white smiles brought by passersby along the street who always inquisitively ask where the traveler is from. The answer "Key West, Florida" always brings another bright smile.

For all the myriad complexities that Fidel Castro's regime has brought -- troubles with getting food to market was one issue being discussed in the country's daily communist newspaper, the Granma -- Pototo isn't convinced that Cubans need everything that America has to offer.

"If big change happens very soon, like in the Eastern European countries, it would not be very interesting to see a McDonald's, KFC or Walgreens on every corner," Pototo said. "I think you have enough over there."

He paused and smiled.

"Seeing more American tourists in Cuba means that more Cuban people will have better incomes," he went on. "Of course, the government will take a piece of the cake, but where does that not happen?"

Pototo made sure to say that he doesn't talk for all Cubans, however, and something in the kitchen diverted his attention.

Nonetheless, his thoughts rang similar to others who were all quick to say that they hope more Americans continue to visit. Such was the case with Francisco, who also runs a guesthouse with his family, but far from Havana.

Viñales is a tobacco-growing region of the Pinar del Río Province in Cuba's far west. Once a predominantly agriculture-based mountain community, the town is quickly growing into a tourist destination. Its sharp peaks that jettison from the valley, known as Mogotes, provide many visitors with stunning views far different than the hustle and bustle of Havana.

Francisco, he also asked that his full name not be used, and his neighbors have turned a good portion of their little street into a de facto hostel village as many casa particulars line the avenue, and each family shares their resources -- a common theme in many Cuban communities.

If laughter where a commodity, then the street may be among the richest in Cuba as visitors and the host families share pictures and drink while travelers practice bad Spanish.

Francisco could represent the newer, younger generation that is attempting to find innovative ways to turn a buck without drawing the ire of the regime. His home is a sort of headquarters among the row of guest houses.

"There were hard laws for Americans trying to come to Cuba," Francisco said, while his children ran about the back porch. "Those laws already existed, but the Obama government has given more American citizens more chances to come to Cuba for sports, school, religion and other matters."

From Francisco's perspective, more Americans don't seem to care as much about the hassles of traveling to Cuba as they did in years past.

"They want to know the Cuba realities, and more people are learning about the Cuban people, and the beautiful nature, culture and history we have," he said. "American tourists are very nice people and spend a lot of money, and that helps all persons here involved in the tourism business."

Francisco leaned in, as if to share a secret.

"Most important of all, you and I are neighbors and the best thing in the world is to live in peace with your neighbor after many, many years of conflict."

And that probably strikes at the heart of it, regardless of where one may lean politically.

What will become of Cuba and it's access to American travelers remains a big question mark, said Benjamin "Dink" Bruce of Key West, who was spotted at Ernest Hemingway's home on the outskirts of Havana that is now a well-visited museum.

Bruce's father, Toby, was employed by Hemingway and Bruce remains a living bridge between the myth of the writer and the realities of his life. He travels to Cuba often to keep that bridge intact, and to provide Cuban historians with correspondence between the author and his father.

"No one suspected the Soviet Union would fall," Bruce said. "The years under Fidel have been pretty calm, but there's always a revolution waiting in the bathroom, as they say. The good news is that the people like us. They like us and need us, even if it's for a cheap, plastic toy or medicine. They need medicine."

Years ago, Bruce noticed many more hitchhikers and there's still a good many seen on the roads around Havana, but the Chinese have provided newer, modern buses. The most noticeable change has been transportation, Bruce said.

"It used to be if you had a car, you had to stop and pick hitchhikers up under the law," Bruce said, with a chuckle. "Not so much of that anymore."

What's to become of Cuban and American relations is anyone's guess, and Bruce is leery of those making forecasts. Such was the case with Pototo, who answered many questions about the future with a smile, a shrug of the shoulders and a simple, "That's up to the old man," meaning Castro.

"We are all friends of Cuba and I can only hope for the best," Bruce said. "I don't know what's going to happen. No one does."

And that uncertainty -- the ongoing mystery of Cuba to Americans -- is what endures.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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